“Machines Are Digging” (2009) by Reza Negarestani

H. P. Lovecraft has an alarming but over-neglected passage about this holey space or ()hole complex (with an evaporative W) as the zone through which the Outside gradually but persistently emerges, creeps in (or out?) from the Inside. A complex of hole agencies and obscure surfaces that unground the earth and turn it to the ultimate zone of emergence and urpising against its passive planetdom and onanistic self-indulgence of the Sun with its solar capitalism. “Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.” (H. P. Lovecraft, The Festival)
—Reza Negarestani, “Machines Are Digging: Lovecraft and Poromechanics of Horror” in Songs of the Black Würm Gism (2009) 167

“Machines Are Digging” is an excerpt-cum-recension of a section of Reza Negarestani’s experimental novel Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anomalous Materials (2008); the two texts are not identical, but represent different iterations of the same concept. The piece represents the crossroads between Negarestani’s philosophical horror and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, the aesthetic point of contact where they come together and, while approaching the material from different angles, arrive at about the same conclusion.

Negarestani’s approach to horror fiction is with the same care, and to a degree with the same attitude, as writing an essay on philosophy or physics. The format and language of his work echoes that of a very intelligent post-graduate student engaging with concepts at a high level, a straight-faced presentation which is ever so delicately off, so that the reader isn’t quite sure whether the author is a genius or genuinely deluded. Even the select choice of word and phrase underlines the academic tendency to define and re-define a technical language for itself.

There is an art amounting to poetry in the suggestive but probably meaningless phrase, and that is the kind of texture that high-level philosophical works tend to have. “Solar capitalism,” for example—what does that mean? On the surface, it does not connect with any familiar phrase or concept. If you pick it apart to try and find meaning—ah, now the reader is playing Negarestani’s game. They’ve bought into the piece enough to start thinking about it, and once you do that you’re getting into the slightly-warped logic, the madman thinking where the view of reality is skewed, like the first step down the rabbit hole of a conspiracy theory.

Philosophical word-games aside, “Machines Are Digging” works in large part because there is something to the connection with Lovecraft that Negarestani talks about. When he writes:

According to Lovecraft, the realism of horror is built upon poromechanics. The poromechanical universe of Lovecraft or ()hole complex is a machine to facilitate the awakening and return of the Old Ones through convoluted compositions of solid and void. (ibid., 168)

He is, knowingly or not (always hard to tell with Negarestani; it’s tricky with any philosopher or madman is to know whether they actually have some secret knowledge or are making shit up as they go along) echoing some solid critical scholarship regarding Lovecraft’s themes. Because Lovecraft did like big holes dug in the Earth and could not lie; the idea of underground caverns and large enclosed spaces feature prominently in stories such as “The Festival,” “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “The Nameless City,” At the Mountains of Madness, etc. and even featured in essays such as “A Descent to Avernus.”

Critics have speculated on the whys and wherefores of Lovecraft’s fascination, from Jungian womb-symbols to shamanic thresholds between the waking and dreaming worlds; the latter a significant plot point in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrow’s Lovecraftian graphic novel Providence. Scott R. Jones compiled an anthology of tales based around the concept, titled Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth (2018)One of the collections of memories dedicated to Lovecraft is Caverns Measureless to Man (1996).

Which is a long way to say: Negarestani is on to something.

In pulp-horror fictions and cinema and in Lovecraft fiction, it is the abode of the Old Ones, worm-entities and the blob (petroleum) that surpasses the tentacled-heads in sentience adn foreignness. R’lyeh is the every dream, motion and calculation of Cthulhu on the solid part of the earth’s body. (ibid., 173)

Whether or not you buy into what Negarestani is selling is something different. Few people fall headlong into philosophy, because the empirical world is quite a bit messier than the general truths espoused, and conclusions arrived at after torturous paragraphs of twisted logic sometimes don’t seem quite so significant and valid in the harsh light of day when your tea has grown cold. But sometimes, you can pull out some wonderful idea or turn of phrase buried in there, a little treasure to wonder at and turn over in your head. “Machines Are Digging” is, regardless of its other merits, a source of inspiration.

In poromechancial cosmology of Lovecraft, exhumation is undertaken and exercised by units called Rats. In fact, ‘the dramatic epic of the rats’ (Lovecraft) can be found in their act of exhuming surfaces, solid bodies and structures resisiting perforation. Rats are exhuming machines, not only full-fledged epidemic vectors but also ferociously dynamic lines of ungrounding. (ibid., 175)

Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all indebted to Gabby Johnson for clearly stating what needed to be said. I’m particulary glad that these lovely children were here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.
—Olson Johnson, Blazing Saddles (1974)

“Machines Are Digging” is experimental fiction, or at least is not concerned with a traditional narrative or format. It is perhaps as close as any writer has come to something like genuine Lovecraftian literature, in the sense of trying to write something that genuinely challenges the reader’s preconceptions and introduces a few new ones; a Necronomicon Lite, fiction and fact and big ideas woven together into something whose big ideas leave the mind spinning off into unfamiliar branches of thought. As bizarre and occasionally baffling as it may be, there are rewards to be gained from Negarestani’s challenging read.

As mentioned above, “Machines Are Digging” is an excerpt, or variant text, from Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. The major differences between the two are a slight truncation of the version in Songs of the Black Würm Gism, and the lack of the surrounding context provided by the novel.

In Cyclonopedia, “Machines Are Digging” is explicitly a pseudo-text among pseudo-texts, a found document that is part of a cache of data for the user to sift through; a part rather than a whole. Reading it in Songs of the Black Würm Gism, wedged between Wakamatsu Yukio’s black-and-white photographs of naked women covered in worms, frogs, octopi, and insects and “Frater Monstrum’s” Chaos Magick-inflected account of “H P Lovecraft and the Loch Ness Monster” the reader doesn’t necessarily get the full burn of Negarestani’s thesis—but it is certainly in good company.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

 

“Keeping Festival” (1997) by Mollie L. Burleson

I first “met” Lovecraft around 1950, when I saw Orson Welles read “The Rats in the Walls on TV. I was stunned. Later I searched for Lovecraft at libraries, book sales, and just about everywhere. Finally in 1971 I found a copy of Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft. I wrote an inscription in it stating how happy I was to find it! […] He took me to Marblehead (Kingsport, as I soon learned), and we met Ken Neily there to celebrate the real Yuletide. What a wonderful experience that was. We went there for fifteen years, never missing a one. We went in sleet, snow, ice, rain, etc. In time, other lovers of HPL joined us […]
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 47

Marblehead, December 21st. Lovecraft aficionado Paul wants to experience Yuletide in Kingsport, for the first time, to try and find something of what inspired Lovecraft to write “The Festival”—and finds, along the way, an unexpected bit of company. A three page story which is not exactly an homage to Lovecrat’s fiction, but to the meaning of that fiction to one person. A prose poem about the experience of Lovecraft’s fiction, which  can be both solitary and intensely personal or a shared and communal.

As with “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, there is a degree of awareness involved in this story. “Keeping Festival” establishes quickly that Lovecraft existed, as a writer of fiction, as he does in the world we know; there is never a suggestion, as is sometimes popular in works like Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978), that the Cthulhu Mythos is also real—the world presented is as close to a realistic and accurate portrayal of contemporary Marblehead as possible. It is not, strictly speaking, a fantastic story at all but an episode from life.

Until a nameless man arrives to share the experience, one as immediately familiar to Cthulhu Mythos fans as the appearance of a particular beekeeper would be to Sherlockians. At this point, the brief sketch dips into magical realism—or perhaps just a daydream—as the stranger takes their leave, and Paul is left in a sublime moment of reliving a scene from their story.

Without being a sequel or prequel or in any way a part of the narrative of Lovecraft’s “The Festival,” Burleson’s is nevertheless completely beholden to it. In three pages she tries to capture something like fifteen years of Yuletide gatherings on the same scene. Not for the sake of Lovecraftian horror, or to add on to the Cthulhu Mythos, or as a commentary on Lovecraft’s fiction but as a testament to how it made her feel. The old familiar ritual, the desire for a communion with Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who had walked those snow-laden streets which he had set down on paper in 1923.

On each 21st, Don would stand on the steps of the church, prototype of the one in “The Festival,” and recite from it with all of us looking on, beginning with “The nethermost caverns are not for the fathoming of eyes that see.”
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 48

Is the reader then a participant, or a witness? Context is important. This is not a story for the uninitiated: readers without a fair familiarity with “The Festival” are not going to pick up on the references to that story, just as readers unfamiliar with Lovecraft himself will not pick up on the Easter egg of the piece. This is the kind of short fiction that can really only be written to an audience already steeped in Lovecraftiana—and combined with the realistic and almost sentimental tone, it’s perhaps no surprise that its one and only appearance in print is the relatively obscure Return to Lovecraft Country (1997).

Mollie Burleson has written a handful other pieces of Lovecraftiana and Mythos fiction, including “The Buglight” (1994), “Literary Remains” (1996), “The Dome” (2010), “Hotel del Lago” (2014), “The Quest” (2016), and “A Yuletide Carol” (2016), but is probably best remembered for her essay “The Outsider: A Woman?” (1990, Lovecraft Studies #22/23), which suggests an alternative and influential reading of Lovecraft’s story.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)